Kate Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a typical kind of person. She has a sordid past that she would prefer not to think about, a present that she isn’t fond of, and a future as hazy as a Sunday morning hangover. She is an alcoholic, and by the time we meet her, she is pretty far down the path. She wakes up with her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul), passed out on top of her, and she has wet the bed, a common problem with her. Charlie forgives her not just because he is an understanding husband but because he is a heavy drinker too. Kate finishes last night’s beer and enters recovery mode. She cleans up, has breakfast, and heads off to work. “Just look how good I am doing,” she must be thinking. She parks her car at work, notices a flask of whiskey in the console, and hesitates. Her face says it all, “One won’t hurt.” She takes two sips and heads off to work.
Kate is a first-grade school teacher. She is light and bubbly and has a good time with her students until she suddenly vomits in front of them. She quickly tries to come up with an excuse when one of the students asks if she is pregnant. Yes! Makes perfect sense, might as well run with it. Word gets back to Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally), who herself could never conceive, but desperately wanted children, and she starts to shower Kate with the kind of concerns and love that an over-protected mother has. Kate doesn’t know what to do, so she ends up quietly digging her own grave.
Kate goes home early and takes the edge off with her husband at the bar. She has one too many drinks, gives a total stranger a ride home, smokes crack with the stranger who is most likely a prostitute, ends up talking to bums along skid row, and wakes up on a discarded car bench seat. This is not the first time she has woken up in a strange place from a long night of drinking, and it’s certainly not the last. Kate and Charlie discuss slowing down their drinking over beers at the bar. That just gets the party going, and they head back home to have a little fun. They drink a pitcher of margaritas while playing croquet in the backyard before they go inside for a little slap and tickle. If Kate could stop there, then she would be just fine. But she can’t. Charlie is the type that passes out easily, whereas Kate needs a little more to finish the night off. She needs that little extra drop, and that motivates her to leave her house in search of booze. The scene that follows is embarrassing, to say the least.
Kate drags Charlie to Lake Arrowhead to visit her mother, Rochelle. It is unclear what she is trying to accomplish, but she feels a compulsion to do it. Kate and Charlie arrive, and Rochelle (Mary Kay Place) immediately suggests Bloody Marys. Kate declines and tells her mother that she is taking a break from booze. Rochelle is another alcoholic in Kate’s life. We learn that Kate’s father sobered up and found himself a new wife, new children, and started a new life in Florida. Naturally, Rochelle resents him and resents AA because she thinks that sobriety is what caused her to lose her husband. If only he stayed drunk, he would have stayed with her. It’s easy to see why Kate has fallen into the trap that she has.
Smashed, directed by James Ponsoldt from a script by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke, manages to capture both the fun of drinking and the empty feelings of loss it can produce. Kate wants to stop drinking, but her husband, mother, and friends don’t think there is any reason to. They don’t want to give it up because that means they have to take a long hard look in the mirror and see who they have become. Charlie and Rochelle certainly aren’t ready to do that, but Kate is. Giving it up costs Kate a lot: It costs her job, her relationships, her house. Her old life was defined by drinking, and now to get away from drinking, she will have to get away from her past. Kate starts the movie a full-blown alcoholic who smokes crack on a whim. She manages to pull back at that point, but if she hadn’t, it would have spiraled into very damaging drug addiction as well, possibly even the end of Kate.
Kate has a lot of hurdles ahead of her on her road to sobriety. The film does not pull any punches depicting the type of life Kate will have to lead to stay sober. She delivers an impassioned speech on the type of life she once led and the type of life she now leads. Sobering up does not correct Kate’s problem; it just confronts her with the truth of her situation. She does have help though. The vice-principal, Dave Davies (Nick Offerman), saw Kate drinking in her car and confronts her. He has been sober for nine years and can read all the road signs. He suggests AA meetings. Davies seems interested in helping Kate and rescuing her from the disease but not as interested as he is in Kate. At the meetings, Kate meets Jenny (Octavia Spencer), a woman who has stayed sober and found a purpose in baked goods. Jenny sponsors Kate and offers the usual slogans and advice for Kate but manages to make them more than simple slogans. Jenny represents a life that Kate can have if only she tries.
Like The Days of Wine and Roses, sobering up doesn’t solve everything. It only solves one thing, being drunk. The road ahead for Kate is not going to be pleasant, and she knows that. You can see it on her face in the final shot. Kate never talks about a life she lost to drinking, the life she always dreamed of but never had, or a life that she could only obtain if she was sober. What are her plans and goals? What does she want to do with her life? Who does she want to be? Maybe Kate just wants to sober up because she wants to be sober.
Directed By: James Ponsoldt
Written By: James Ponsoldt and Susan Burke
Produced By: Jennifer Cochis, Jonathan Schwartz, Andrea Sperling
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Mary Kay Place
Sony Pictures Classics, Running time 85 minutes, Rated R, Released October 12, 2012.